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Quick trip Ferry operators feel their speed, comfort may finally pay off

Arthur Imperatore, founder, NY Waterway.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

In terms of quality of service and overall comfort, NY Waterway founder and President Arthur Imperatore Sr. says there’s no comparing a daily ferry commute across the Hudson River to train rides or tunnel traffic.That’s why he says that, for years, those in the ferry business have referred to it as the “civilized commute.”

“When people get used to it, it’s like catnip,” Imperatore said. “It’s hard to turn away from it.”

Throw in the fact that ferries are almost always on time — and take roughly 20 minutes less time per trip — and you should have a winning business model.

It just hasn’t worked out that way.

“It should translate into some commercial value, some level of advantage that’s accepted by the rider,” Imperatore said. “But we find that people in their commute would rather suffer. It’s crazy, but we’re not successful in convincing people with very clear criteria as to the efficiency of what we do.”

Imperatore, however, is hopeful that soon may change. Especially now that his biggest obstacle — total cost differential — continues to narrow.

As an unsubsidized industry, ferries have competitively suffered by offering service at much higher costs than their mass transportation counterparts.

For instance, a monthly pass on NY Waterway from Hoboken to Midtown will run you $272. That’s a far cry from the $89 unlimited 30-day pass on PATH and the $139 monthly pass on NJ Transit from the same location.

That has translated into ridership that, at best, has fluctuated in recent years: the New York Harbor averaged 35,353 weekday, one-way ferry trips in 2012, up from 31,546 the year before, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But that average fell to 33,941 in 2013 and was just about flat in 2014.

Still, if cost differential is one of the ferry industry’s greatest obstacles, recent developments across the area’s commuting landscape may offer some room for hope.

NJ Transit didn’t hike fares last year but it has become increasingly expensive to commute to Manhattan each day on the statewide commuter rail system. And there are very real concerns about future on-time performance as upcoming repairs to Hudson River tunnels will undoubtedly limit service and affect train capacity.

Forget driving. As anticipated, the Port Authority recently raised cash tolls on bridges and tunnels to $14, a figure already comparable to the ferry before you begin to add in Manhattan parking prices and the associated costs of driving into New York each day.

Ongoing questions surrounding the state’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund and PATH’s annual revenue losses don’t do much to boost the confidence of traditional commuters either.

So if cost margins between ferry and standard commutes are decreasing and uncertainty around roads and trains is escalating, could there be an opportunity for the ferry industry to make some inroads?

“As other forms of transportation become more expensive and certainly more congested … the easier it is to take our ferry,” said Brett Chamberlain, director of marketing for Seastreak, which operates daily commuter ferries across the Hudson.

And like Imperatore, Chamberlain said that, when compared to other commuter options solely on levels of service and quality, the ferry is unmatched. That’s especially with the case of timesaving, a factor Chamberlain said presents a lifestyle change in and of itself.

Consider: The aforementioned pricey Hoboken to Midtown ferry only takes about eight minutes, according to NY Waterway. While the PATH offers similar trip times, that same ride on NJ Transit from Hoboken takes about 30 minutes.

“We think that’s a proposition that we win against our competition every time,” Chamberlain said.

Both NY Waterway and Seastreak say that they’ve seen ridership bumps in recent years and are optimistic about future ridership projections. But it’s been a long time coming for each, as both have been providing commuting services for decades along numerous routes.

Liberty Landing Ferry, however, is a relative newcomer on the scene and has a more real-time sense of optimism.

An affiliate of Statue Cruises, which provides tourist ferry service to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Landing began in 2010 when it took over a commuter ferry route from the Liberty Landing Marina.

Though just providing one route with two stops in Jersey City before terminating in Lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center, Liberty Landing Ferry has seen its customer base grow over the last four years, according to Statue Cruises Chief Operating Officer Mike Burke.

“That’s experienced steady growth from when we took it over in 2010 to the end of 2014,” Burke said of the route. “Over that four-year period, we’ve seen it more than double, 119 percent growth in ridership.”

Echoing Imperatore and Chamberlain, Burke would like to think a major factor in the service’s growth are the reliability and quality of performance features enjoyed by the ferry over other traditional competitors.

Other reasons mentioned by Burke include the marina’s accessible location and the growth and development of Jersey City.

With so much being said these days about transit-oriented development around train and PATH stations, Chamberlain notes that he’s seen it with the ferry as well.

In Hurricane Sandy-ravaged Highlands, one of Seastreak’s departure points, Chamberlain said development is fast-occurring near the ferry. Hoboken and Jersey City, two other Seastreak points, are seeing it as well.

“We certainly see it in towns in which we operate,” Chamberlain said.

Michael Smart, an assistant professor and transportation expert at Rutgers University, said ferry ridership bumps in light of higher costs on other transportation forms make sense.

Smart said that, with people making decisions at the margin, they are left asking themselves whether it’s worth it to endure commutes that have become increasingly expensive or burdensome. As that gap narrows, it’s only natural that more will reconsider the ferry, he said.

That trend will be specifically influenced by work on the Hudson River rail tunnels and any negative effects it may impose on commuter rail systems, he added.

“As those differences have decreased, you just sort of naturally see more people saying it used to be worth 20 extra dollars, but now it may be worth 15 extra dollars,” Smart said.

“I expect we’ll probably see that trend continue.”

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrgeorge

Andrew George

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